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4 Tips for Alzheimer's Prevention

Many of us fear our own golden years may be tarnished by Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. While some factors can’t be changed, up to one-third of cases are influenced by lifestyle--and therefore, are potentially preventable. The Savvy Psychologist offers 4 tips to keep your brain fit and healthy for years to come.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 8, 2014
Episode #031

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Many of us, especially those who have witnessed a spouse, parent, or grandparent decline or suffer from dementia, fear our own golden years may be tarnished by Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. While some factors can’t be changed—our age and genetics, for example—up to one-third of cases are influenced by lifestyle, and are therefore, potentially preventable. To that end, the Savvy Psychologist offers 4 tips to keep your brain fit and healthy for years to come.

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Officially, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth most common cause of death among Americans.  But a 2014 study in the journal Neurology re-examined “cause of death” entries on death certificates and medical records, which help generate the rankings. Researchers found the immediate cause of death— like pneumonia—was often listed instead of the underlying cause, like Alzheimer’s. 

The researchers estimated that the true numbers of Alzheimer’s-related deaths are much closer to the first- and second-ranked causes: heart disease and cancer. If the numbers play out, the impact of Alzheimer’s could be five or six times the current estimate.

But First, What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a kind of dementia—a family of brain disorders that cause deterioration of memory, decline in intellectual capacity, changes in personality, and loss of social skills severe enough to rob someone of his or her independence.

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia; it’s responsible for about 60% of all dementia cases. Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, which means it worsens as it advances. The course of the illness is generally a slow, steady slide in functioning, as brain cells degenerate and die.

The next most common dementia is vascular dementia, which accounts for about 20% of all dementia cases. But the exact numbers are murky because it’s possible that vascular changes can also cause Alzheimer’s. However, vascular dementia is caused by damage to the network of blood vessels—the vasculature—within the brain, often from a series of small strokes due to blood clots or burst blood vessels. As the vascular system becomes damaged, blood cannot reach the brain cells and they die.

If Alzheimer’s is a slide, vascular dementia is a downward staircase, with plateaus of symptoms followed by sudden declines.

There are temporary treatments, but there is no cure for Alzheimer's or vascular dementia. Therefore, prevention is vital. You can’t control all factors that feed into whether or not you’ll develop dementia—your genetics or age, for example—but you do get to choose how you live your life.

And while there’s no magic bullet for preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, there are many things you can do to reduce your risk. To that end, here are 4 tips for keeping your brain healthy.

Tip #1: Take Care of Your Heart and Your Brain Will Follow

Again, according to a 2014 study from the University of Cambridge, up to one-third of all cases of Alzheimer’s are significantly influenced by lifestyle, and are therefore preventable. 

So use this rule of thumb: anything good for your heart is also good for your brain. A 2014 study followed almost 18,000 Americans for four years, and found that those with the worst cardiac health were most likely to develop cognitive impairment over the course of the study.

Furthermore, cardiac-related conditions, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, can increase your risk of vascular dementia--so take care of your heart, and your brain will benefit.

How to do this? The biggest is exercise, which stimulates nerve growth and increases the number of small blood vessels in the brain. But getting enough sleep, eating a heart-healthy diet, and reducing negative stress are key as well.

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